Art wanderer : in Tibet, Lhasa and the Potala


After this little break, it is time to change air for a while, and what air ! I am thinking again of the thin, pure, crispy , cutting air of Tibet from last summer.
It was not the first time I had been in Tibet : funny as it may seems, this time I had to go through a much worse and more absurd ritual of checks, rules and plans-changes at the last moment at the whims and fancies of the random official. This was a big year for pilgrims and authorities did everything they could to keep foreigners and devotees apart. In Lhasa, the Potala Palace was almost quiet: there was still a constant string of pilgrims flowing around it but much thinner and ordained than one would guess. It appears some festivals were going on in the surroundings. Good thing is that this time I could actually visit the Palace, whereas before I had to give in the crowds and long queues and be contented with a picture from the outside. Yet let’s stay concentrated on the outside for now. The Potala is almost a symbol, a perfect and sober geometry of colors that defies the surrounding mountains. One pleasant thing in Lhasa now is the rising number of rooftop terraces with restaurant and bars and the sight of the Potala against the desert is the most convincing and awe inspiring proof of the days when Tibet was a powerful kingdom obliging China and others to respect and exchange of brides. It is also a powerful reminder of the harsh untamed beauty and ruthlessness of nature, this block of intense white, red and yellow against the desert all around. One wonders how in this barren land a rich kingdom could thrive and rise. The Potala Palace includes the functions of palace, fortress and monastery and yet if one observes its appearance is not much different from that of the houses that dot the Central Tibet area: one could almost imagine to assemble different houses and floors and get the same result.

This is because the basic form of architecture was indeed the farmhouse and because the farmhouse had to both withstand the weather and fulfill the needs of its inhabitants. Let’s start with the weather. Central Tibet is not a rainy region, on the contrary it is closer to a desert. Yet its winds are chilly and strong. So it is better to have sturdy walls and little windows rather than sloping roofs. If you travel down to the East, you will notice that the roofs are again sloped : Eastern Tibet is a very humid and rainy area. Then the farmhouse had to keep inside animals (lower ground), people (top roof) and logically food reserves to keep in long winters (middle roof). To sustain three loaded storeys, the walls had to be quite thick: in Tibet the outer walls bear the load and gently taper to the top as it diminishes. There was hardly any use of arches and wooden columns were used to help to support the whole structure. These sturdy solid houses come out from the surrounding rocks as if they were born with the landscape too: the Potala is very similar in this from the top of his rocky outcrop. And yet, even being born out of the most simple and organic architectural traditions, the Potala remains an impressive sight, dominating the lands around. It was originally the palace of Songtsen Gampo, the mythical and first king. Yet the Fifth Dalai Lama is remembered to have significantly enlarged the buildings already existing and making them as grand as we see them now.

Inside the Potala, there are many beautiful things to absorb, yet with the little time imparted by the authority (everybody visits it on a fixed slot), you cannot make justice to all the details, given the extent of the place. So you try to absorb as much as you can, but still have to flee to the next room. And yet the quality of the wood carving on both the ancient wood pillars and the decorative work is truly remarkable something in between a naturalistic simplicity and a sweet day dreaminess, that you would long to admire much more. Inside there is also a unique wealth of statues of all sizes and shapes , stored inside closets, way too many to be exposed. Again it is just a quick glimpse through those that must have been offerings and gifts from other countries and other notable pilgrims through the ages. And yet at the end, the most unique, heartwarming and heartbreaking sight is the endless flow of long braided old woman and man, that with strenuous decision climb the step, bend their forehead to these sacred places.

Despite the ugliness of human nature that is pushing Tibet to become another cave of rare minerals or a tourist playground, there is still some unique treasure: the obstinate strong heart and hopefulness of all these pilgrims, their smile carved out of endless wrinkles that tell about the sun and the dust.



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